Category Archives: theory

The force of custom. Law and the ordering of everyday life in Kyrgyzstan

In this third lecture that I will be giving while residing in Paris as a DEA-fellow, I will  present the key findings of my recent book  “The force of custom. Law and the ordering of everyday life in Kyrgyzstan” (2016, Pittsburgh University Press).

In this monograph, which covers a decade of anthropological fieldwork and scholarly engagement with Central Asia, I take up a particular counterintuitive perspective by looking at how my informants in rural Kyrgyzstan order their everyday lives and rationalize their recent history. I reveal how rather than conforming to a predictable ‘post-socialist’ pattern, my informants instead show a great capacity to hierarchize and create order on their own terms.

My approach investigates the ways in which actors tactically and persuasively invoke different kinds of law to constantly create a hierarchical model of socio-legal order in which the umbrella concept of custom (salt) comes to dominate their everyday life.

Invoking salt enables actors even as they claim to be constrained by it, it opens up possibilities to conceptualize, classify, and contextualize large- and mid-scale developments in an intimate idiom. It also is a way to communicate to others that one is an expert in and of one’s own culture.

I thus offer a unique critique of the concept of ‘postsocialism’, a new take on the concept of legal pluralism, and a serious plea to bring ethnomethodological approaches into correspondence with ethnographic data.

Location: Monday March 12, 13-16h. EHESS on 54 Boulevard Raspai.

Shari’a, tradition and the state in Kyrgyzstan. Competing repertoires of order: the case of mortuary rituals

This will be my second lecture while I am in Paris, this time as part of the “Séminaire Transformations de la Normativité Islamique” organized by Professors Baudouin Dupret, Nathalie Bernard-Maugiron, Jean Philippe-Bras, and Marième N’Diaye

Jeudi 8 mars de 10h à 13h, en salle de réunion de l’IISMM (96 boulevard Raspail, 1er étage)


In Central Asian Kyrgyzstan, shari’a and tradition are best understood as two interrelated répertoires of order. Historically, they have developed alongside each other and the population has learned to reclassify social practices or local institutions that might be regarded as unlawful or illegal by Islamic clergy on the one hand or the state on the other by reinterpreting them ‘according to custom’. I refer to this process as ‘customization’.

In this lecture, I will use the example of elaborate gift-exchange practices during mortuary rituals in order to show how imams, state officials and the local population try to grapple with the disputed social practice of giving large carpets during funerals and mortuary rituals that is considered against shari’a and also contradicting new state regulations. Nevertheless, gift exchange continues and has even intensified in the last decade.

This lecture investigates emic local understandings of shari’a and tradition and positions these in the context of a changing social and economic environment where formerly Russian and Soviet state practices aimed at curbing ‘irrational’ local behaviour and where nowadays remittances from Central Asian labour migrants fuel the local ritual economy.

Being Muslim in contemporary Myanmar. On community and the problem with ‘communal violence’ – Talk in Paris.

During my upcoming stay in Paris, I will be giving several lectures, the first one taking place at the Institut d’études de l’Islam et des sociétés du monde musulman. Come join me!

March 6, 17h-19h – Salle des étudiants. 1er étage, 96 bd Raspail 75006 Paris.

Organized  by:  Séminaire de l’équipe « Anthropologie comparative des sociétés  et cultures musulmanes » (LAS)

In my talk, I take the example of Muslim communities in Yangon, the former capital of Southeast Asian Myanmar, in order to investigate the various groups’ strategic useage of their religious property (mosques and graveyards) as a form of material, symbolic and political capital. I argue that it is through their religious property that Muslims in Yangon make claims to their right of existence as communities in the public sphere. They thereby manage to fend off both the Buddhist majority, the state and private investors. In a time of increasing ethnonationalism, which results in the destruction of mosques and the writing of discriminatory laws against religious Others, property becomes part and parcel of these communities’ survival strategies. While the creation of ‘communities’ along ethno-religious lines had been part and parcel of colonial and post-colonial state-making, some communities who understand themselves in this way or have come to present themselves in this way, are now being pushed to the very margins of their own society and their own country. Some of them have been denied not only citizenship, but with it the right to exist and their name to even be mentioned. However, religious minorities were among the first inhabitants of Yangon in the 19th century. Burma, as the country was called formerly, had been part of the British Empire during the colonial period of 1824-1948 and was under colonial legislation of British India. Muslims were brought to the country from India in 1840. They worked in the colonial administration, as soldiers or as unskilled workers on the shipping docks. Around 1880, Burma became the third largest destination for Indian workers worldwide. This lecture questions the contemporary portrayal of communities in the country in terms of  ‘communal violence’ only. It traces the historical development of the ‘community’ concept from British colonial times to the contemporary era. Using ethnographic fieldwork data gathered between 2013 and 2018 as well as textual data, legal documents and other sources, I explore why the current invocation of  ‘the Muslim community’ has made living together in Myanmar more difficult.


Amrith, Sunil. 2013. Crossing the bay of Bengal: The furies of nature and the fortunes of migrants. Boston: Harvard University Press.

Bauman, Zygmunt. 2009. Community. Seeking safety in an insecure world. Polity.

Cheesman, Nick (ed.) 2017. Interpreting communal violence in Myanmar. Special Issue of Journal of Contemporary Asia.

Freitag, Sandria. 1989. Collective action and community. Public arenas and the emergence of communalism in North India. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Tönnies, Ferdinand. 2005 [1887]. Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft. Grundbegriffe der reinen Soziologie. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft.

Yegar, Moshe The Muslims of Burma: A Study of a Minority Group, Otto Harrassowitz, Wiesbaden, 1972

Research Granted: How to become an activist in Myanmar and South Africa

The German Research Foundation (DFG) has granted 4 PhD positions at the University of Konstanz for a joint comparative research project on “Activist becomings in South Africa and Myanmar.“ I will supervise 2 PhD projects on Myanmar while my colleague, Thomas Kirsch, will supervise two projects on South Africa. We hope that the outcomes will provide new knowledge concerning practices of democratic participation in the midst of urban and postcolonial crisis.

The project is definitely a precious contribute to the infrastructural turn and could serve as a model of research in very different parts of the world and in different social and political circumstances (anonymous reviewer)

With a focus on material and non-material infrastructure, our project seeks to provide new theoretical and methodological tools to study political formations, thereby contributing to an anthropology of activism, infrastructural studies, political anthropology, anthropology of democracy and African and Asian studies. The research project explicitly seeks to disseminate knowledge and build bridges between scholarly research and activism – something I am really excited about!

Teaching: Neotraditionalisation, indigeneity, and the problem of authenticity

I will be teaching a MA-seminar within our joint MA-program “Anthropology and Sociology” at the University of Konstanz this coming winter term (course is in German). Here is the announcement:

Scottish kilts, Japanese ninjas, African body painting and Halloween in America: are these traditions genuine?

This question seems to be relevant at first sight, but from an anthropological point of view, it is not the most pressing. When dealing with such ‘traditions’, we should rather seek to understand which actors, in which context, when and for what purpose present a certain practice, a discourse, or an object as ‘traditional’. ‘Tradition’ has been regarded as a counterpart to ‘modernity’ especially from the 19th century onwards. The term was coined negatively, as an obstacle that had to be overcome. Soon, though, ‘tradition’ also came to be romanticized.

Within the framework of colonialism in the 19th and 20th centuries, the concept gained new relevance worldwide. By its application, selected practices could be classified as intrinsic parts of people’s ethnic or local identities. Commonly, even practices that only emerged as part of (and in response to) colonization became classified as ‘traditions’. The famous criticism of these processes speaks of the ‘invention of tradition’ (Hobsbawm and Ranger 1983).

The subsequent scientific debates were largely concerned with the concept of authenticity, and with it the assumption that traditions had a pure origin and were always at risk of being falsified, mixed, or forgotten. This point of view has also been critically reflected in anthropological debates.

In recent decades, the importance of ‘tradition’ has been examined especially in the context of nation-building processes, as many of the newly emerged post-colonial states are strongly recruiting the idea of ‘traditions’ to promote a stable cultural collective identity. Currently, ‘tradition’ is also being actively promoted in the context of recognition claims by representatives of indigenous groups – but this has at times also been to their disadvantage. In this seminar, under the rubric of ‘neotraditionalisation’, we will focus on the critical reception of the concept of the ‘invention of tradition’, especially the problem of authenticity, on the role of ‘tradition’ in nation-building processes, as well as on current debates on indigenous movements as well as the negotiation of ‘tradition’ at an international level (e.g., non-governmental organizations) and its adjudication by state courts.

Harmony ideology. On ethnographic research in Kyrgyzstan and Ethiopia

Here is the full pdf-version to an article I co-authored in 2015 together with Felix Girke in Common Knowledge as part of a special issue on “Peace by other means.”

In the article we engage with Laura Nader’s famous concept of “harmony ideology” from a practice-oriented perspective by taking ethnographic material from Southern Ethiopia and Northern Kyrgyzstan.

To everyone working on the concept of yntymak in the Central Asian context and on intergenerational dynamics, this paper might be helpful. Also to researchers working on the ‘cultural neighbourhood’, on interethnic relations or on the concept of ädamo in Southern Ethiopia.



Podcast about my book

Sean Guillory of Sean’s Russia Blog spoke with me the other day about my book “The force of custom. Law and the ordering of everyday life in Kyrgyzstan.” You can listen to the podcast online here or download the podcast here.

In our interview, Sean asked me what inspired me to do a study on “custom” (Kyrgyz salt) and how we can understand the concept anthropologically, how it is communicated, what metaphors are associated with it and in what contexts we can observe it in action.

Sean was also interested in hearing my reasons for not anonymizing my main informants, how people in my fieldsite conceive of their history, what the historical trajectories of the local courts of elders (aksakal courts) are, how Soviet life has been unmade after Kyrgyzstan gained independence, how we should understand the role of the state in the countryside and what the roles of elders and their relationship with villagers, politicians and state administrators are.

Finally, we discuss my decision to end the book with a criticism of the concept of postsocialism which, I argue, is not central for understanding everyday life in Kyrgyzstan.